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[William Hazlitt]
Mr. Coleridge's Lay-Sermon.
The Examiner  No. 472  (30 March 1817)  28-29.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH


No. 472. SUNDAY, JAN. 12, 1817.



Sir,—Your last Sunday’s Literary Notice has given me some uneasiness on two points.

It was in January, 1798, just 18 years ago, that I got up one morning before day-light to walk ten miles in the mud, and went to hear a poet and a philosopher preach. It was the author of the Lay-Sermon. Never, Sir, the longest day I have to live, shall I have such another walk as this cold, raw, comfortless one in the winter of the year 1798. Mr. Examiner, Il y a des impressions que ni le tems ni les circonstances peuvent effacer. Dusse-je vivre de siecles entiers, le doux tems de ma jeunesse ne peut renaitre pour moi, ni s’effacer jamais dans ma memoire. When I got there, Sir, the organ was playing the hundredth psalm, and when it was done, Mr. C. rose and gave out his text, “And he went up into the mountain to pray, himself, alone.” As he gave out this text, his voice “rose like a steam of rich distill’d perfumes,” and when he came to the last two words, which he pronounced loud, deep, and distinct, it seemed to me, Sir, who was then young, as if
the sounds had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in solemn silence through the universe. The idea of St. John came into my mind, “of one crying in the wilderness, who had his loins girt about, and whose food was locusts and wild honey.” The preacher then launched into his subject, like an eagle dallying with the wind. That Sermon, like this Sermon, was upon peace and war; upon church and state—not their alliance, but their separation—on the spirit of the world and the spirit of Christianity, not as the same, but as opposed to one another. He talked of those who had “inscribed the cross of Christ on banners dripping with human gore.” He made a poetical and pastoral excursion,—and to shew the fatal effects of war, drew a striking contrast between the simple shepherd boy, driving his team afield, or sitting under the hawthorn, piping to his flock, as though he should never be old, and the same poor country-lad, crimped, kidnapped, brought into town, made drunk at an alehouse, turned into a wretched drummer-boy, with his hair sticking on end with powder and pomatum, a long cue at his back, and tricked out in the loathsome finery of the profession of blood.
“Such were the notes our once-lov’d poet sung.”
And for myself, Sir, I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres. Poetry and Philosophy had met together, Truth and Genius had embraced, under the eye and with the sanction of Religion. This was even beyond my hopes. I returned home well satisfied. The sun that was still labouring pale and wan through the sky, obscured by thick mists, seemed an emblem of the good cause: and the cold dank drops of dew that hung half melted on the beard of the thistle, had something genial and refreshing in them; for there was a spirit of hope and youth in all nature, that turned everything into good. The face of nature had not then the brand of Jus Divinum on it;
’Like to that sanguine flower inscrib’d with woe.’

Now, Sir, what I have to complain of is this, that from reading your account of the Lay-Sermon, I begin to suspect that my notions formerly must have been little better than a deception: that my faith in Mr. Coleridge’s great powers must have been a vision of my youth, that, like other such visions, must pass away from me; and that all his genius and eloquence is vox et preterea nihil: for otherwise how is it so lost to all common sense upon paper?

Again, Sir, I ask Mr. Coleridge, why, having preached such a Sermon as I have described, he has published such a Sermon as you have described? What right, Sir, has he or any man to make a fool of me or any man? I am naturally, Sir, a man of a plain, dull, dry understanding, without flights or fancies, and can just contrive to plod on, if left to myself: what right, then has Mr. C., who is just going to ascend in a balloon, to offer me a seat in the parachute, only to throw me from the height of his career upon the ground, and dash me to pieces? Or again, what right has he to invite me to a feast of poets and philosophers, fruits and flowers intermixed,—immortal fruits and amaranthine flowers,—and then to tell me it is all vapour, and, like Timon, to throw his empty dishes in my face? No, Sir, I must and will say it is hard. I hope, between ourselves, there is no breach of confidence in all this; nor do I well understand how men’s opinions on moral, political, or religious subjects can be kept a secret, except by putting them in the Correspondent.

Semper Ego Auditor.